In marking this anniversary, the editors of The National Catholic Reporter write:
[Humanae Vitae] was a sensitively written document about the sanctity of marital love and the need to nurture life in marriage. But whatever else it stated, it has been remembered for only one thing: the upholding of the Catholic church’s ban on birth control.
The encyclical upheld Pope Pius XII’s support of the rhythm method (now called natural family planning) and in doing so, revealed its particular understanding of natural law. Its reasoning, theologians say, rested on the physiological structure of the act of intercourse while largely discounting the larger context of human love and family life.
Less than a decade after the encyclical’s promulgation, polls showed it was overwhelmingly rejected by Catholics. . . . Repeated U.S. surveys find that Catholics regard church teachings on sexual morality increasingly out of sync with their lived experience and their understanding of love and intimacy. They knew and still know that sex between husband and wife is capable of creating far more than new humans. They also know their gay sons and daughters are not disordered . . . (NCR, July 25, 2008)
This past Sunday, award-winning Catholic author, Robert McClory (pictured at right), had a commentary published in the Chicago Tribune about Humanae Vitae and its legacy.
McClory’s commentary is reprinted in its entirety below.
Contraception Ban Remains Bitter Pill
By Robert McClory
July 27, 2008
By Robert McClory
July 27, 2008
Forty years ago last week, Pope Paul VI issued his encyclical Humanae Vitae, condemning the birth control pill and all other forms of artificial contraception.
So, four decades later: Did Paul get it right or wrong?
Right, say the encyclical’s throng of proponents (just Google Humanae Vitae and scroll on forever). The pope predicted a lowering of moral standards, a rise in infidelity and promiscuity, a lessening of respect for women and government-enforced limitations on population. All these things have come to pass, and the pope’s supporters see contraception at the center of them all.
Wrong, say the numbers who have left the church since 1968 (so that one in every 10 Americans is now a former Catholic, according to a Pew survey this year) and the majority of believers (more than 75 percent, according to the 2005 Catholic Identity Study) who remain in the church yet reject the encyclical. The proclamation was, they insist, a disaster.
Speaking of Humanae Vitae, Chicago’s Cardinal Francis George acknowledged gloomily, “We have the beginning of the dissolution of the teaching authority of the church.”
That raises an issue that gets too little attention in the debate. The ban on all forms of contraception always and everywhere not only failed to solve the problems inherent in the sexual revolution, it prevented the church from having any voice in ongoing discussion among reasonable people of faith (or no faith) concerning responses to the revolution.
The revolution would have happened if the pope had said nothing, or even if the birth control pill had never been invented. It was well on its way with both its assets and its liabilities by 1968. To make contraception the only major cause is to place too heavy a responsibility on one very visible factor. Paul VI thought he might turn back the tide or un-grease the slippery slope with strong words, but they proved too strong.
In traditional Catholic morality, the nature of a human act, the intention and the circumstances must be all considered in weighing its rightness or wrongness.
But as Pope Paul presented his case, intention and circumstances are irrelevant. The nature of contraception is so heinous, so intrinsically evil that alleviating circumstance and good intention don’t count.
We can all acknowledge that contraception is on a different level from, say, killing a human being. Yet killing is an act that may not be determined good or bad until we know intention and circumstances. The placing of absolute judgment on contraception itself—by pill, condom or whatever—raises the bar to a level that seems to many responsible and thoughtful people to be irresponsible.
Killing is not always wrong. But contraception always is?
To cite a not-uncommon case from Africa and elsewhere, may a man infected with HIV use a contraceptive device to prevent infecting his wife? No, he may not, says church teaching.
May a couple who already have seven children and live in a blighted, overpopulated region practice contraception to curb the likely death by starvation of an eighth child? No, they may not. They can choose abstinence or try natural family planning and hope for the best.
Closer to home, may a couple in Chicago beset with financial or health problems temporarily rely on contraception until they are in better shape for a family? Absolutely not!
The problem with Humanae Vitae is rigidity. The pontiff was correct in seeing what strange fruits the revolution would produce, but his cure was as bad or worse than the disease.
He could have acted differently. He could have said that the world is facing an unprecedented challenge in human history that requires careful study and expert inquiry. He could have said that selfish, non-generative lifestyles are not acceptable, that thoughtless contraception cheapens sex, that circumstances count very much and that people have an obligation to weigh carefully what they do.
He could even have praised the values of natural family planning. He could have become a respected conversant among national and world bodies seeking credible answers. But because of the absolute ban, popes, bishops and theologians have had little to offer except a repeated no, no, never!
Church leadership left the table 40 years ago, painting itself into this corner.
Within the church itself the saddest byproduct is what has been happening to its membership. Many parents of the 1960s retained an overall confidence in the church while dissenting on the contraception issue. Their children widened the sense of separation, and the grandchildren may not even realize there ever was a religious institution that had wisdom and a sense of real community to share.
That fruit of Humanae Vitae is for many the most bitter.
Robert McClory of Northwestern University is a former Catholic priest and author of As It Was in the Beginning: The Coming Democratization of the Catholic Church.
Recommended Off-site Link:
40 Years of Humanae Vitae, the “Pill Encyclical” - Gerald A. Naus.
See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Robert McClory’s Latest Book Honored by Catholic Press Association
Robert McClory’s “Prophetic Work” (featuring two reviews of McClory’s latest book, As It Was In the Beginning: The Coming Democratization of the Catholic Church).
A Catholic Understanding of Faithful Dissent (Part 1)
A Catholic Understanding of Faithful Dissent (Part 2)
Here Comes Everybody! (featuring my April 2008 interview with Robert McClory).
Ghostwriting for the Pope (a commentary by Robert McClory).
The Second Annual Prayer Breakfast for Hope and Justice (which featured Robert McClory as keynote speaker).
Image: Michael J. Bayly.